Temple’s Thanksgiving tradition has been helping others for 30 years

From left, Jennifer, Susan and Lauren Goldberg and Carol Cohen are ready to serve dinner at Temple Israel the night before Thanskgiving. Temple Israel has been serving a holiday meal to the less fortunate for three decades and counting. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Between the happy murmur of the crowd and the rattle of metal trays full of food being hustled past, Temple Israel saw plenty of lively action the night before Thanksgiving. 

But, at this synagogue, Thanksgiving has been this way for three decades. 

“We open it up to anyone in need if ‘in need’ means you are elderly and alone and have nowhere to go or if you don’t have a means to have a warm Thanksgiving dinner,” said Sarah Falkoff, co-chair for the temple’s annual holiday dinner event to feed the less fortunate.

Falkoff estimated about 420 guests were referred or bused in from various social service agencies and there were plenty of folks there to serve them. An exact estimate of volunteers wasn’t clear but everyone agreed the number hit three digits. 

It is Falkoff’s eighth year assisting in the effort.

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“There is so much to gain,” she said. “It is just the feeling that we’ve made this night special for so many people who would not normally have a special evening. You interact with people you normally would not see every day but we live all in the same community.”

That idea of welcoming the stranger as a part of the larger whole is heavily baked into the unique roots of this TI tradition, which got its start with a fellow named Ernest Wolf. A non-Jewish German studying at Washington University just before World War II, Wolf was called back to his European homeland to be conscripted into the military. Wanting nothing to do with the Nazi regime, he needed money to escape to Mexico and literally found himself begging various religious institutions along Kingshighway hoping for help. 

Only one responded. 

The $300 Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman bought Wolf safe passage to Mexico and — more than a half-century later — would be repaid as a $50,000 gift to TI with the only stipulation being that it be used for doing “good things.” Thus, the temple’s annual Thanksgiving dinner was born. This iteration marks its  30th year.

Dee Mogerman, president of the congregation, has been participating for about half the dinner’s long run. Clad in an apron and gloves, she was on serving duty doling out generous helpings of sweet potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing to happy guests. 

“Some people are new immigrants and they’ve never had Thanksgiving before,” said Mogerman, of Creve Coeur “They look at the food and they are not sure what some of it is but it is a great experience for them.”

Mogerman said that the food was prepped onsite with congregants baking pumpkin pies for recipients. As many as 500 extra pies went to help the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry so others could share in the bounty. Everyone shared in the work as well with the religious school, the preschool and TI’s Boy Scout Troop 11 pitching in.

“It’s a whole temple community event,” she said.

Ebony Finnie certainly appreciated the effort.

“It meant a lot to me because I didn’t have that type of food to cook so I enjoyed it,” said the formerly homeless 31-year-old who is now in transitional housing. “I was very thankful for all the people who went out of their way to make that food.”

Finnie, who was there with her 7-year-old daughter Mersadies, said she enjoyed talking with her Jewish tablemates about the meaning of Hanukkah, which she had not known about before. She was impressed by the amenities.

“When I walked into the room, it was like, wow,” said Finnie, who plans to move into her own housing Dec. 1. “They had everything set up so nice.”

That’s no accident, said Rabbi Amy Feder. From the china dinner service to the silverware to the live music from the Ladue Strolling Strings, the idea is to create a fancy atmosphere for a special meal.

“More importantly, we’re really talking about being able to show people respect,” she said. “We can say you are made in the image of God the same as we are so that’s why we do this event.”

Better yet, the generosity of the foundations and supporters backing the event had made it possible to send food home with participants so they could enjoy that other great American Thanksgiving tradition – leftovers.

Hannah Maurer, a Parkway Central High School junior from Chesterfield, said she’s enjoying her fourth year of volunteering.

“I come from a very small family so it is really nice having all these people surrounding me and knowing that we can be their family for the holidays,” said the 16-year-old who spent much of the evening cutting pies and talking with guests.

Creve Coeur resident Erin Schneider said this was her third year volunteering. A social worker by training, she definitely wanted to make the event a priority despite her own family’s holiday travel schedule.

“I made our plans to leave tomorrow so I could stay here and do this tonight,” she said.

Attendee Jean Gant, a 60-year-old Northside resident who lives on disability, said the Jewish community’s gesture meant a lot to her.

“I feel like I’m at home when I come in the door,” said Gant, who is here for her third year having been bused in from her home by the Urban League. “From the time I step off the bus, somebody was there all the way in.”

Holding a container of leftovers to take home, she said that, these days, it can be tough to make ends meet but TI’s event plays a big role.

“This helped me to have a great Thanksgiving,” she said. “It helped me feel thankful.”